In its annual Worldwide Developers Conference last June 2020, Apple announced the release of its latest software update for the iPhone — iOS 14. Despite the usual fanfare commonly associated with the yearly release, the company’s silicon valley neighbors aren’t too happy.
In a nutshell, Apple is doubling down on transparency — particularly in data collection. The company is enforcing new practices on the AppStore to help users better understand the data they share with developers.
One notable way this is done is through what Apple calls “nutrition labels” for privacy. These are essential, small cards that appear at the bottom of App information pages that serve as an easy-to-understand way for users to know how much of their data and app collects.
In the past months, we’ve seen a gradual but consistent rollout of nutrition labels in the AppStore with one, trillion-dollar company as a standout omission — Google.
Despite having several months to update its app information pages, Google’s apps still do not contain any information regarding its data collection practices.
The gaping absence of transparency has led many to believe that the company is collecting significantly more data than they’re comfortable admitting.
The recent omission, along with Google’s reputation, has unsurprisingly led many to look for ways to wean themselves off of Google’s personal-data chokehold.
As much as ditching Gmail, never watching YouTube, and using TOR as your daily browser would be effective, it’s not exactly workable. The key, however, is gradual change.
With that in mind, here are a few actionable things you can do today to steer clear of Google’s wandering eyes.
Look up what Google knows about you
There’s an easy way to see what Google knows about you. The first and easiest step to taking back your data begins with a quick visit to adssettings.google.com.
If you’re not logged into your Google account on your browser (which I’m pretty sure you are), you can do that before heading over to the site.
Once there, you’ll be greeted by a colorful myriad of icons, which you’ll quickly realize is a list of interests and personal attributes. The list contains Google’s best guess at things like your age, sexual orientation, and interests based on your online behavior.
Some noteworthy characteristics are homeownership status, household income, and parental status. Dig deep, Google likes to camouflage the disconcerting with the mundane.
After letting your shock and/or curiosity subside, there are a few things you can do.
You can go through each interest on the list and click “Turn Off” one by one to tell Google not to show you ads related to a specific topic. What I would suggest though is to look at the toggle directly above the list that says “Ad personalization is ON” and just toggle it off.
Does this stop Google from tracking you across the web? No.
What it does, though, is prevent Google from using this information to target you with ads tailored to you.
Though unfortunately not a magic kill switch, turning Ad personalization off is a good first step to taking back your data from Google. It also serves as a solid start to understanding just how much Google knows about you.
Change browsers — Chrome sucks, anyway
“I can’t live without my plugins, and Chrome looks so clean! Who wants to be the weirdo that doesn’t use Chrome?”
I get it. To many people, Chrome is outstanding and the only browser they could ever use — if it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t have a crazy 66% share of the browser market.
Regardless, please keep an open mind. Let’s assess Chrome, given that we now know how data-hungry Google as a company is.
Chrome is a browser that you’re literally logged in to 24/7. Think about that for a little bit. You log in to Google for the very thing you used to do all of your online activity on.
Even if you’re not completely sold on the privacy aspect, Chrome is just a bad browser. The amount of RAM Chrome consumers compared to other browsers is so comical it’s practically a meme. (There ARE memes!)
Instead of asking you to ditch Chrome completely, I would suggest using Chrome as a secondary browser for when there are specific plugins you need or websites to visit.
I use Safari on my laptop and have transitioned my mobile browser to the DuckDuckGo browser, which I highly recommend. If you’re unfamiliar, DuckDuckGo is a search engine with a strong emphasis on privacy — a search engine company can still profit without unethical data harvesting practices.
Their browser, which is currently only available on mobile, shares the same principles. It blocks trackers and encrypts your connection where possible.
Keeping Chrome as your secondary browser as opposed to your primary one will do a lot to help your digital privacy. You’ll have access to your favorite plugins when you need them while still doing your part to protect your data.
If you’re on a Mac, Safari is a good, neutral option, and if you’re on Windows, Mozilla Firefox is a solid choice with a strong emphasis on privacy.
Change search engines
Changing the default search engine on my phone is certainly one of the biggest steps I’ve taken and not one that’s for everyone. Google Search is the gold standard for finding what you need, and I’ll be the first to admit that.
Much like our tip on switching browsers, changing your default search engine doesn’t mean abandoning Google search, but only using it for specific needs.
For the past month, I’ve been using DuckDuckGo’s browser, which has the DuckDuckGo search engine embedded by default. From my use, I get the results I need with one search about 90% of the time. For the other 10%, I keep a shortcut to Google for easy access.
What you’ll quickly realize is that for most instances, a different search engine can do just and Google.
“Does moving to a new search engine entail some challenges?” Definitely.
I miss having snippets of articles instantly pop up with answers right after searching, but it’s a choice I’ve made to partially step away from Google’s hold on my data.
Final thoughts on digital privacy
I know people who have told me to my face that they couldn’t care less what Google or the government knows about them, and that’s certainly their prerogative.
If you’re anything like me though, then you’re at least a little uncomfortable with the amount of data Google collects. This alone has significantly affected my decision to avoid using Android phones as best I can. I don’t feel comfortable using a phone with a “free” operating system provided by Google, but that’s just me.
Despite this, I can’t deny that Google services are fantastic and difficult to stay away from, but digital privacy doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
What I’ve listed above are just a few easy ways we can all start weaning ourselves from big tech companies like Google, who are all too happy to give us free services for our precious data.